A battle won but not the war
Across the southern states a battle is raging for our most precious resource. The value of water has reached a premium, and it will only increase with time. As the cities and counties of the West continue to grow, so does the need for new water sources to support their ever increasing demands. While the quest for oil is on the forefront of everyone’s mind, dollar for dollar, water is by far more valuable. We can live without oil if necessary, but we must have water to survive. During the past few years, several applications have been submitted to the State Engineers Office in New Mexico for the purpose of tapping into the deeper aquifers, waters that were previously deemed unusable and were until now protected from such requests. One by one, they have been protested and denied. This is not the end of the effort. Future legislation will support these requests as our cities continue to grow, along with the residential demand for additional supplies — water for sanitary and domestic use is, and always will be, a priority to developers and communities. The health and welfare of the masses could easily trump the livelihood of the rural ranchers. They are few, urban residents are many.
The people of the San Augustin Plains in Catron County, New Mexico have been granted a temporary reprieve. New Mexico State Engineer, Scott Verhines recently denied an application for water rights, which was filed by the San Augustin Plains Ranch LLC. This application, if granted, would allow the applicant the right to pump as much as 54,000 acre feet per annum (54 million gallons/day) of the deep waters that course beneath the rolling grasslands of western New Mexico. These waters, the “Blood of the Plains,” support a fragile ecosystem of man and beast, the last vestiges of our great western culture, history still living and breathing, and depending on what little water remains after years of drought. These are the sacred waters for which the Warm Spring Apaches were named. The same water filled the wells that provided sustenance for the homesteaders, and still support their ancestors today. Cattle were watered from these wells as they were herded across the Driveway Trail to the railhead in Magdalena to be shipped to the stockyards. They too followed a long history of necessity, providing sustenance of a different sort to the masses further east, and supporting a way of life that could not have existed but for the sparse plenitude of these waters.
Having participated in a study of the water resources of the San Augustin Plains, which was in part spurred by the application for water rights, I have a vested interest in the outcome of this and any future applications. I have seen firsthand the quality of the people and the place, along with how the scarce water resources have defined their way of life. Water, an essential for our survival, the same that has been battled over from the first moment any living creature came to live in the arid plains of New Mexico, or any other, has defined the edict of the survival of the fittest.
The dwellers of the San Augustin Plains and all of their supporters have won a battle, but not the war. The quest for water to provide for the insidious growth of our cities has only just begun, and one need only look around the corner to see the evidence of that. Now is not the time to celebrate, but rather to redouble the effort required to protect this precious element of our survival. Though the battle to maintain control over the future uses of the water resources in Catron County was a heated one, the next will be even tougher. Rest assured the protestors are not the only ones who have learned a lesson. None of us are eager to volunteer for more government regulation of our land and water, but in the end these will be the only defense. We are all punished by the worst person’s behavior. It will prove better to establish our own rules and regulations on a local platform, rather than wait to have them imposed upon us. The State Engineers Office has their statutes and in this instance stepped up to the plate, but they encourage the individual counties to identify and establish their own guidelines, to assure they are specific to their individual needs. Documentation and regulation allows for the application and utilization of water resources to be managed in a conscientious and sustainable manner. Those parameters must be clearly defined to prevent them from being circumvented or misused.
In depth studies have been conducted over a large area of the San Augustin Plains, but there is very little substantive hydrological data available for this area. Before decisions can be made regarding any additional demands on the water supply, data must be amassed and utilized to establish the best management practices for now and in the future. The County Commission and the residents need to pool their energies and expertise toward constructing a regulatory platform to assure any application for a water right in their jurisdiction is subject to guidelines that will protect resources, along with the customs, culture and way of life they support. This is the lesson they, and all residents of our Great Plains states should pay close attention to. This is only the beginning of a lengthy and vicious battle. New people are moving to the West every day, all of them demanding their share of the same water we depend on for survival. Historically, this part of the country has been sparsely populated, and the old timers are quick to point out the reason, there ain’t much water out here!
Cathie R. Eisen is a Nogel resident certified by the New Mexico Environmental Department Operator Certification Bureau as a Level Four Water/Wastewater Operator. While employed by New Mexico Tech Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources she served as a Hydrological Field Technician and participated in an aquifer mapping project administered of the San Augustin Plains and the surrounding area from 2009 through 2011. She currently operates Walking Water Consulting.